The Importance of Play

I will probably be writing a variety of posts on this topic and I hope to have a podcast episode discussing it as well because I am fascinated and amazed by this book. I am so grateful that it was one of the ‘encouraged readings’ to complete my Infant Massage Educator Certification. The area I want to share about today is most pressing in my parenting life currently and Margot Sunderland terms it the “Chemistry of Drive and Will.” I happen to have a child with a pretty strong drive and will, and I want to know how to foster it appropriately. In fostering this chemistry, Margot Sunderland describes the importance of supporting our children to develop a “seeking” system. This system results in curiosity, motivation and intense interest. I will say that if I’m ranking the top qualities I want to encourage for my daughter – internal motivation is way up there.

I used to think that the ability to be internally motivated came from a strong sense of independence, allowing for frequent independent play with minimal adult interaction during those times. While this technique has some part in the development of the “seeking” system, there is so much more that goes into the type of play and interaction that best supports development.

Some of the best ways to support this system include sharing adult joys and excitement with your children. When children see adult passion, it stimulates further drive in themselves. Additionally, playing with children, rather than just letting them play by themselves will also further support this system. It is important, however, that the play is designed in a supportive role, and not as a leader, to allow those motivational drives to develop.

So what if you might not be the best person to share internal drive with your child? I’ll be honest, while I definitely have it, my husband is able to express it so much more than I. His internal motivation is phenomenal. Which is good because he is also a “rebel tendency.” Based on how we are, how we were raised, and our childhood experiences, we might not always be the best people to teach our kids everything. We do, however, need to find people to incorporate into our children’s lives that can show this. For example, my husband loves all of the SpaceX stuff. He makes sure that every time there is a launch that he watches it with my daughter. They go to the store and pick out model rockets and launch them in our front yard. He is sharing his passion with her and his excitement is getting her excited about all things Space related.

How about play? As I mentioned previously, I thought that fostering independence was the best way to support some of this internal drive. While independent play is another crucial part of development, our participation and how we participate is even more important. So how should you play with your kids? It depends on their age. I have a friend that once told me that the infancy/young toddler age was hard for her because she wasn’t sure how to play with them but as they got older, she felt much more comfortable. Me? I’m honestly better at the younger ages. As my child plays more by herself, I struggle with how to participate in and not disrupt her game play. Similarly with finding someone with passion to expose to your child, if you aren’t comfortable with play at all ages, find people who are, get ideas from friends, and read on for some of my age appropriate tips.

The last thing to consider before we talk about specific activities is the importance of creating and ‘enriched environment.’ This type of environment is the best way to develop a strong “seeking” system which is essential to develop curiosity of passion. An ‘enriched environment’ includes 4 components: cognitive, physical, social, and sensorial. In other words, the best play has aspects of learning, movement, interaction between two people, and has components that touch on the 5 senses (hearing, vision, touch, smell, and taste.) That may seem like a lot, but after we look at the things you can do with your kids, I hope you find it much easier to incorporate this kind of play for your child. Please note, I do not believe that your child should be participating in this kind of play during all awake times. This play can be off and on throughout the day or even for a longer period of time once per day depending on the age of the child. We all need a break from high learning environments to allow our brain to make the positive changes impacted during them.


With infants, you want to be cautious of how many senses you stimulate at once. For instance, even just stimulating sound and vision at the same time may cause your infant to want to just close their eyes and push away or cry. I really love using infant massage as a technique to create an enriched environment for the little ones. In this sense you are stimulating their sense of touch, socially connecting with them, moving them (and seeing how they move in response) and allowing them to learn how different areas of their body feels and what your face looks like. Eventually though, your infant is probably going to have enough touch and may need different senses stimulated. You can sing to them, shake rattles different places or read them a book. I would stick with ‘no batteries’ toys in infancy and focus on contrasting colors, mirrors, and rattles. Excessive sounds can overstimulate them. While babies do require stimulation, it is incredibly important to understand when they have had enough and sometimes we just need to hold them and take away all other stimulus.

Moving babes to toddlers

Movement is already covered at this age and good luck slowing them down. One of the more impactful things I learned from this book is the power of commenting. This is crucial in this and the next age group particularly. While we often want to ask our kids questions, it leads to disruption of play, even in those kids who have well developed verbal skills. Instead of “what are you doing?”, we can say “oh look, you’re standing at couch!” Maybe we are building blocks and the babe knocks it down “you knocked it down! let’s build it again.” Early on, you will need to be the one building the tower but as your child’s motor skills develop they will be able to participate. All of those times they watched you build the tower, they will now begin to try, and I’m sure you will need to help, but ultimately you can step back a little and just remark on their mastery. The commenting piece is two-fold – it stimulates the social interaction and also prolongs the play time which becomes even more important in the next stage.

Little Kids

My biggest struggle as my child entered this stage was that her imagination far exceeds mine. She asked me to come play with her and she’s got it all under control, I don’t want to step on her toes. This is where commenting comes in. Maybe your child already has a developed imagination so lets support her by commenting on what she’s doing without disrupting in. “Oh you’ve tucked all the baby dolls in!” As mentioned previously, this mode of commenting not only allows social interaction but it can prolong the play time. Rather than the child tucking all the babies in and then getting bored and moving to a next activity, commenting on it may trigger something else or the next step. Maybe it’s that the baby doll is now hungry and we need to make a snack. If you’re child just parked the car, maybe one forgot something ands to go back an get it. At this age, many children play in a way that reflects their life. You can learn a whole lot about what is going on in your child’s head by listening to what they say while they are ‘imagining.’

Maybe your child struggles with imagination. That’s okay! While imagining is not my strong suit (I prefer to stick to a script) I learned a really great play strategy by watching friends of ours interact with their children and my child loved it! Just pretend and act it out. Make up a story. Fairy tales are great underlying basics to start with but go with whatever your child is passionate about. Start telling the story and acting it out and have your child play a part too. Gradually, your child will want to add to the story and eventually, they might begin telling a story on their own. Responding with passion and excitement to their additions will encourage them to continue.

What about non-imaginative play? My preferred way to interact with my little is to incorporate her into daily tasks and she LOVES it. Expect a mess and for it not to turn out perfectly but baking/cooking is one of my favorites. You can trigger the cognitive pieces by talking about how many scoops of each thing goes into the bowl and allowing your child to do the pieces you are most comfortable with. Maybe you measure it out and they dump it in. Hand over hand guidance is okay. Let’s trigger the senses by tasting and smelling the different ingredients. They are moving through the actions, socializing with you, learning about a new skills or numbers or something, and experiencing all of the senses. (See how simple that can be?) The important thing is though, to be in a good state of mind when you do this. If you’re rushing to get dinner on the table, it’s probably not the best time to have your child help if you’re going to get frustrated. Choose times that are more flexible and that you’re not going to get upset over some spilled milk.

Kids (4-5 years old)

As you foster your child through play in the younger ages, they may be better at reproducing it in good environments with peers at this age. It does depend on the peers’ upbringing as well. Commenting remains an appropriate strategy. Maybe you’re not sure what your child has drawn but you can always say something like “You used the red nicely here” or “What a big hole you’re digging!” As we get ready for our kids to enter school, we need to keep their homes as safe places to explore and make a mess. There is no reason that these kids can’t help clean up the mess but it should all be done in a playful fashion. Every time we say the word “no” to our kids, it shuts down the seeking system just a little bit so be mindful of when you really need to use it. Maybe your kid is playing with paint on the carpeted floor and you’re worried about it getting everywhere. Instead of saying “no” – how about “let’s move this activity to the kitchen, or put some newspaper underneath so that you can freely explore.”

At this age, you want to continue to share passions with your kids. While their understanding may be more superficial, there is so much more grasp of concepts than there has been previously. Now, they can share their passions with you. When they share their passions, pay attention, ask questions, comment, allow it to foster and develop, let them guide it. You can use sticks and rocks to set up habitats and environments that are ever changing to help develop creativity and learning for different toys you already have. Maybe if you’re baking, your child can now do more, choose the recipe, read the numbers, count the scoops. The opportunities are endless. Sometimes they come up organically, but depending on what age we start being aware of creating enriched environments, we may need to make them happen a little bit more.

Parenting is the hardest thing I have ever done. It is so rewarding and yet can be so draining. My social energy is so much lower after a day with my child than a day with my job, but it’s incredibly worth it. Knowing that many of the things I’m already doing, can have lasting effects to result in a driven adult, makes me feel even better about it. I love to learn the science of the way things work and the way the brain develops. For many, who were raised (and even those who weren’t) in enriched environments, this type of parenting can be second nature. For others, we need to learn new ways to support our children. I used to believe that loving your kid was enough. Loving your kid is crucial and important, but every child is different and needs us to show them love in a variety of ways. Playing with your kids in a way that works for them and stimulates at passion is one of those ways.